The cover photo on Kotorino‘s new album Better Than This shows an empty antique couch beneath a bright, mostly cloudless afternoon sky. It’s a considerably sunnier picture than the ones frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ songs paint, although the implied solitude is telling. Kotorino began life back in the mid-zeros as a creepy chamber-pop ensemble with something of a steampunk edge, which Morris has pretty much ditched for an even creepier, considerably more muscular circus rock ambience. He is as adept at latin music as he is at noir cabaret, with both styles represented all over the place here. If it’s still possible for there to be such a thing as a “breakthrough album,” this is Kotorino’s – the gypsy rock crowd, the oldtimey swing crowd, the noir contingent and fans of nuevo tango all get plenty to enjoy here. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
The opening track, What Is This Thing is a tango, Morris joining with his Charming Disaster femme fatale foil Ellia Bisker and the rest of the women in the band (tuba player Liz Prince, violinist Estelle Bajou and singer Molly White) for some pretty otherworldly vocal harmonies:
She put him on like a pair of fuzzy slippers
He let her down like a broken elevator…
They were packing it up and saving it for later
She was sleeping in the tub til they got some sunny weather
He was smoking again just to take a little breather
They wrap it up with a wry Dell Shannon quote and a big brassy outro.
North Star State is Morris at his enigmatic best: who are the guy and girl in this oldtimey-flavored duet looking for, and is that person alive or dead? The music is equally clever: endless volleys of counterpoint between the horns, bass and tuba and eventually a big carnivalesque brass-band coda. Going Out Tonight, a picturesque tale of a guy hellbent on springing his girlfriend from a mental ward somewhere in the Midwest, has a devious minor-key pulse: “Come with me for some rebellious exercise,” Morris grins. He and Bisker duet on the album’s best and most menacing track, Murderer, a lurid crime-jazz number that illustrates why the perfect crime requires a lone perpetrator.
Never Had a Chance, a cha-cha in 7/4 time, is the liveliest and most surreal track here, packed with droll touches like breaks for fingersnaps and bass, a brief but momentous bass sax solo from Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk and a blazing Jesse Selengut trumpet solo out over an oompah groove. Morris and Bisker get deceptively chaerming and blithe on the East River Ferry Waltz, before Morris lays on the cynicism – which turns out to have lethal implications, if you pay attention. They follow that with the morose chamber-pop tune Broken Carousel, another waltz, buildling to an unexpectedly savage Morris guitar solo and a big, majestically orchestrated crescendo.
The album’s title track is a nebulous, coldly ambiguous solo piano ballad. They wrap it up with Into the Sky, the album’s most phantasmagorical, epically sweeping song, pulling out all the stops for a cruelly cynical faux-gospel bridge, equally sarcastic girl-group harmonies and a typically blazing horn arrangement. As darkly evocative art-rock goes in 2013, it doesn’t get any better than this: watch for it on the “best albums of the year page” here in about a month.